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Standing Stones in Cyberspace: The Oneida Indian Nation's Territory on the Web

Nestled among the old green hills of central New York lies a tiny sovereign nation. Most cars simply speed by it, but if you slow down, you'll hear the noisy Canadian geese overhead, flapping their way back south for the winter. There's a smell of woodsmoke and sweetgrass as you walk up the wide plank steps of the cultural center, named Shako:Wi: or `He Gives.'

If one enters the structure, built of heavy, peeled, white pine logs, and listens to the Clan Mothers, they will say the People of the Standing Stone and the territory upon which they live have been here since time began. Note that this is not a reservation, the Oneida have always lived here. During the American Revolution they helped the cause of the colonists and they remain an unconquered Nation today.

The Clan Mothers can tell you this story in English or the Oneida language, which is taught at the Cultural Center. Down the road in another building, the story is told in another tongue: html: HyperText Markup Language, which provides the grammar for World Wide Web pages on the Internet.

At the current homepage of the Oneida Indian Nation, you can take a virtual tour to the Oneida territory. Click on the Cultural Center to hear the language spoken or visit some of the intriguing exhibits. You can learn about nikohla' or wampum and discover that it was not used by native people as money, contrary to legend. You will discover the hidden history of Polly Cooper, among others, an Oneida woman who helped keep George Washington and his troops from starving during the winter of 1777-78 in Valley Forge. In gratitude for Polly's gift of time and expertise in cooking and medicine, Washington gave her a shawl which, along with the oral tradition of the Polly Cooper story, remains a treasured relic of the Oneida people. At the Oneida homepage you can also peruse a cookbook with native recipes or look in on the activities of the Oneida Nation police force that has federal, state, and local authority on the territory. There is much to see and do on these pages if you take the time to explore.

I am not native, but I am fortunate to have played a small role in the history of how one American Indian nation was the first to also claim territory in cyberspace; this is that story. On September 15, 1997, I interviewed Dale Rood, Special Projects Technician and Men's Council Member, representing the Turtle Clan of the Oneida Indian Nation (OIN). He was joined by OIN employees Dan Garrow, MIS Director and a member of the Mohawk Nation, and Dan Umstead, Internet Coordinator. Following are excerpts from that interview.

Q: Can you give me, in a nutshell, the history of the OIN?

Rood: "The Oneida Indian Nation is a member nation in the Iroquois confederacy, which also includes the Mohawk, Seneca, Tuscarora, Cayuga, and Onondaga. The confederacy pre-dates the U.S. Constitution. In fact, as a Marble Hill Oneida, I can trace my own roots back nine generations. Today, there are about 1,100 Oneidas."

Q: The first thing you see when you open the OIN Home Page is the OIN seal. Can you tell me a little about the iconography represented by the various symbols?

Rood: "The seal has great significance. The eagle at the top of the tree is the sentry over the nation, the white pine is the tree of peace and you can see the purity of the white roots. The club underneath the tree shows that we buried our weapons there."

Garrow: "That's part of the story of the Iroquois confederacy's formation -- that the Peacemaker buried the weapons of the various member nations under the roots of that tree. The animals shown -- the Turtle, Wolf, and Bear -- represent the Oneida clans. The belt is the Oneida wampum belt."

A Chance Meeting

Q: How did the idea of getting a connection to the Internet and creating a web page come about?

Garrow: "Dale and I were on a plane on the way back from New York City after attending an IBM class there. Sitting in the same row with us was Jim Luckett, the Executive Director of NYSERNet, which was the main academic network in New York state at that time. During the flight, he whipped out his portable Macintosh and started keying away, so of course we got talking to him and he mentioned What he did at NYSERNet. We made a meeting appointment and that's how you got involved. Then you and he came over to talk to us about getting a connection, I think it was December of 1992."

Umstead: "In May 1993, I was employed by the nation. As a librarian I was very familiar with what the Internet could do for the nation. I met up with Dale and Dan and we compared notes. Soon we had a dial-up account we could use for nation reference work. Several native listserv discussion groups had been active for awhile, and we realized we could use them as a vehicle for our official press releases. We sent out the first one September 1, 1993 and after that, we started putting out our press releases on a regular basis. We sent them to places like `NATIVE-L.' We may have been the first to send out press releases over this list, which was mainly for discussion by native students and interested others.

"In February 1994, I got together with you and NYSERNet and you said why don't you consider doing a web page? We sat down -- Dale, Dan, a couple other folks, and myself and we thought about what we might do. That following May, with your help, the web page went up on space donated by NYSERNet."

Garrow: "Ray Halbritter, our nation representative and CEO, has always been a proponent of technology and has given us the resources we need to move forward. So technology and computers already were in daily use at the nation, and this seemed like a logical extension of what we had already begun."

How the Web Was Woven

Q: What did you hope to do with your web space at first?

Rood: "It has always been the position of the Men's Council, as a forward-thinking body, that the Internet was a way to tell our story as Oneida people. We have always wanted to be `ahead of the curve' and part of being ahead was to be on top of technology. It just seemed like the next step. The web page for us, and as part of the government of this nation, has been invaluable to save parts of our history. To be able to tell the history that one can't readily get in any schoolbook or in any other written documentation -- we are able to tell our own story, the Oneida nation story."

Umstead: "The general public doesn't know a lot about Indians. For example, there is a misconception that all Native Americans live out west! Being on the web helped open up lots of people's eyes to the fact that there is a very, very large native population on the east coast, one which has far more impact on non-native culture than was ever realized. In fact, we're one of the first points of contact for nonnative people cruising the Internet. It's also made people around the world realize what a strong community the native community is in this country, which they didn't know before. And, the historical and illustrative material was done with input from the elders, and it's all primary source material."

Q: I see you have gotten a number of awards for your page. Any interesting stories there?

Umstead: "Our page went up in May of 1994. Very shortly thereafter, I was notified that we were given one of the first `Point Top 5% of the Web' awards. We were the first sovereign Indian nation to put up a web page and perhaps the first nation of all (there were only about 5,000 web pages on the net when we came up). Even the White House homepage wasn't up yet!"

Early Web Contents and Anecdotes

Q: Later that year your homepage came to the attention of the White House. How did that happen?

Umstead: "We had a routine of sending news releases to the…but we never thought anyone would actually read them! One day I got a phone call from a guy who said he was Jock Gill, from the White House. He explained the White House was putting a web page up and they wanted various ethnic groups to look at the beta and make comments on it before it went up for the public. So, because we had this web experience, they asked us to be part of this select group. I think this was in October of 1994.

"We all went over to NYSERNet's computer lab with the big screen, so lots of us could view the White House pages at the same time. Brian Patterson, Men's Council representative of the Bear Clan, noticed the list of treaties with other nations. He said, `Look, they have all these other treaties there, but no native treaties!' Sure enough, he was right! Then Brian said, `I remember when I was ten or 11 years old. My aunt was always coming up to me and saying, `Do you know your treaties? You must know your treaties.' Well, I did not know my treaties and I did not know where to look. Her statements led me to become actively involved with my nation. If I did not know my own treaties, how could I expect anyone else to?

"So Dan Garrow looked at me and said, `Why don't we put the treaties up?' We told the White House about the treaties and put our archive of them up December 11, 1994, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Canadaigua. As a result of the White House connection, we later visited members of the White House web team including Jock Gill and David Lytel.

"Our page was being shown in Washington a lot. An Oneida woman was at a meeting where the Executive Director of the Indian Health Service was talking about the web and how Indian nations really should get on it. He said, `I want to show you what this one nation has done, they are far ahead of everyone else,' and he brought up our homepage. When the audio clip of the Oneida language played, this woman said she almost fainted. She had not heard her own language in years. She later walked up and introduced herself and told him, `That's my nation.' And now she tries to show the homepage to people every day."

Q: Tell me how the Oneida Indian nation became an Apple Library of Tomorrow (ALOT) grantee in 1995.

Umstead: "One day I got a call from Steve Cisler at Apple; you had put him onto what we were doing. He asked us what we wanted to do next and we presented the idea of doing homepages for other Indian nations, specifically the ones in USET (United South and Eastern Tribes). There are now 23 member nations involved in that. Sometime later, I was on-line at 2:00 a.m. and reading e-mail, and all of a sudden Cisler sent me mail asking for my postal mailing address because he was sending us a server! Wow! We had been selected for the Apple Library of Tomorrow project. That spring, we flew out to Cupertino, California to meet with other ALOT grantees and to present our project at the Ties that Bind Community Networking Conference."

Q: You've tried to get the other nations in USET interested in your doing homepages for them or helping them get their culture on-line -- how is that going?

Umstead: "The idea was that we would provide the space and the expertise and they would give us content for their own homepages. We went to the USET meeting in Washington [DC], in February 1995. We wired the place and did live demos of the Internet, which the IBM guys (who by that time were also involved with USET) told us was sort of unheard-of at that time."

Garrow: "Unfortunately, people weren't that interested at that time, but we kept at it. Now there is a new committee to speed up the process which I'm involved with. There are various problems -- sometimes the other nations don't have the technology or perhaps they want to get it underway themselves. Support is still emerging, but you can see what We've done so far at [our homepage]. I should say that, along with Apple, IBM has been outstanding in trying to help USET to get the tribes up on technology."

Q: About this time you got your own leased line to the Internet, but then came the question of getting your own domain name. You weren't strictly a .com,' although the nation does have various commercial enterprises. You weren't strictly a `.edu,' [educational facility] or a `.org,' [nonprofit] and although you're a sovereign government, `.gov' was reserved for U.S. or state governmental entities. What was left was the country code hierarchy, such as `' or something like that. What did you do?

Umstead: "We kicked this around awhile and finally decided what was needed was a new TLD or Top Level Domain. We thought `.sov' for sovereign would be acceptable. You helped us get in touch with Jon Postel and others who decide these things on international committees. Keller George, President of USET and an Oneida, agreed to champion this issue and it drew the attention of Josh Quittner at TIME magazine. Unfortunately `.sov' was abandoned as it became clear there was much more to this than we thought, and meanwhile, our domain was being held up. So we're Perhaps the issue of a new TLD will be raised again soon as more opportunities to create TLDs open up."

Current Status of Projects

Q: How many hits do you get to your home page each day? Where do they come from? What's the most popular area of your page?

Umstead: "A couple months ago the New York Times did a story on us, among others, but they mentioned that we had been the first native web page and complemented us on our page's contents -- we got a lot of hits from that. Normally, we get about 4,500 to 5,000 hits a day, but that spikes every time we announce a new on-line historical exhibit. I usually send announcements to Usenet groups such as `alt.native' and `soc.culture.native,' as well as the InterNIC's `Net-Happenings' list.

"We have also gotten a lot of international attention. We have countries looking at us from all over:

United Arab Emirates, Tibet, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Belize, every place you can name. We heard from a New Zealand lawyer who was helping the Maori in their fight for recognition as a sovereign nation.

"We had a visitor from Australia who was writing a fictional love story about the French and Indian war. She found us from the web page and wrote to us over e-mail. She wanted to actually come and meet members of the confederacy in person. She spent two days here and went back to Australia to write the book. A German couple saw the web page and came here to visit the cultural center. One Chinese high school spent a week reviewing the web page to learn about native culture, and we've had a group from Egypt inquire about t-shirt designs from our screen printing enterprise. We've also gotten lots of inquiries about ancestry and genealogy."

Towards the Seventh Generation

Q: What's next for the OIN in technology?

Garrow: "We have run a fiber optic cable to the homes in the White Pine village, so the dream is to bring as much of the educational resources as we can into people's homes. `making a change in people's lives through technology' is what I like to say. But exactly what that means depends on so many things -- costs, social concerns of having your house wired -- is big brother watching? -- etc. It's just on the list of priorities facing the nation. We do have the seventh generation in mind through all this, though it may take all seven of those generation to get there."

Rood: "You see, it's this way for all Iroquois people: every decision I make, I have to take into consideration every Turtle Clan member seven generations into the future. The decision I make today has a direct effect on all those generations, this is a very important pat of our decision-making process. So we are not only preserving our culture for the current generation, but also for the future generations to come."

Q: Any advice for those who would follow in your footsteps and try to preserve their culture using a web page?

Umstead: "People think the net is going to be this fast multimedia experience, but the basis of the Internet is content. If you don't have good material, your page is worthless. We just hope people will come to us when they want authoritative information about the Oneida."

Garrow: "We did have some audio and video and other glitzy stuff, but they were so slow coming across that we had to think of the lowest common denominator: people with very slow net connectivity. We want people to come to us and sit down and really learn a lot, but if they sit there and have to wait a long time for something to download, that's frustrating. And they won't come back to us. So we'd rather build our html for slower speed connectivity, since that's what so many people have."

Rood: "Glitzy is definitely not always the way to go, simple is probably the easiest and most appealing to people."

Umstead: "The other important thing: be cautious about what you read on the `net and what you put up on the `net. Spend a lot of time thinking about what you want to put up and what you want to share with other people. Be cautious about what you want to share and what you don't want to share of your culture. Remember, if you put it up, people will use it. So carefully plan it all out beforehand. Make it so you're comfortable with what you put up there, and then, enjoy the ride because you're going to meet a lot of people you wouldn't ordinarily meet."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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